Sun Belt Basketball Preview: The Real Season Begins

College basketball is in full swing and Sun Belt teams are geared for the second-half marathon. The conference appears to be loaded up top this year, making for an exciting two-plus month season.

The Sun Belt has seemingly solidified its spot in the very middle of the basketball world based on RPI, as the rise of some teams have coincided with the fall of others. Of 32 conferences, the Sun Belt is ranked 16th in average RPI.

Here’s a quick breakdown of every team followed by a list of players to watch in an arena near you. My end of season prediction is also included.

Appalachian State

Record: 5-8

KenPom: 207

NET: 230

The Mountaineers are off to a rough start and will need a hard turnaround to give fifth year head coach Jim Fox his first winning record in Boone.

App State has endured one of the Sun Belt’s toughest non-conference schedules, but limp into conference play just 2-8 vs D-I opponents.

Defense has been an issue for the Mountaineers, thus far, as the team has struggled to force turnovers. App State forced 13.5 turnovers per game, ninth in the Sun Belt. The team’s 5.7 steal percentage is 338th nationally.

Arkansas State

Record: 6-7

KenPom: 274

NET: 199

Mike Balado’s second season is off to a slightly better start than his first in Jonesboro. The Red Wolves have centered their offense on aggressively driving the lane. The style has worked, as long as they get to the free throw line.

Arkansas State is shooting an abysmal 41 percent from inside the arc (346th) but get 23.9 percent its points at the charity stripe (18th).

Crashing the offensive glass is a big factor and the Red Wolves have begun to specialize in it. Arkansas State is rebounding 33 percent of its own misses this season.

Coastal Carolina

Record: 6-6

KenPom: 188

NET: 221

Long time coach Cliff Ellis is about to navigate his third Sun Belt schedule and may have his highest-scoring team ever to do it with.

It feels like the Chanticleers have been on the verge of something big all season, going 0-4 against KenPom top-150 teams but losing those games by an average of just 6.3 points. The sharp-shooting Chants could be a quietly dangerous team if they figure out how to win early in conference play.

Coastal Carolina is shooting 38.5 percent as a team from long range (34th) but turnovers have stunted the offense. Over 10 percent of the Chants possessions are ending with a live-ball turnover.

Georgia Southern

Record: 8-5

KenPom: 133

NET: 139

A 5-0 start to the year gave way to tougher opponents and tougher losses. The Eagles garnered a big win over Montana but are 0-4 against KenPom top-100 teams.

Georgia Southern may be the most exciting team in the Sun Belt to watch. The Eagles fly at super speed, running number of possessions into the 80’s regularly. The average Georgia Southern possession lasts just 14.6 seconds, sixth fastest in the country.

The Eagles prefer to live around the rim on offense and do it well. They’re shooting at a 58.5 percent clip inside the arc (6th) and get 56.8 percent of their points from two-pointers.

Defense has also been a strong point for Mark Byington’s team. The Eagles are top-20 in steal percentage and top-70 in block percentage.

Georgia State

Record: 9-4

KenPom: 112

NET: 114

Ron Hunter’s Panthers have played a more than worthy schedule and have come out ahead. Georgia State has played six KenPom top-100 teams and are 3-3 in such games. The Panthers may be the most war-ready team in the Sun Belt this season.

Georgia State is efficient on offense and sound on defense with the free throw line and rebounding being the only true hindrances to this team. The Panthers are hitting 37.6 percent of their threes and are getting 36 percent of their points from outside.

Winning the turnover battle has been the key thus far, with an average plus-4.3 turnover margin. That’s best in the Sun Belt and 24th nationally.

Little Rock

Record: 5-8

KenPom: 230

NET: 276

It seems like ages ago when Little Rock ripped off 30 wins and upset Purdue in the NCAA Tournament. The Trojans are 27-50 since then, including a 5-8 start to Darrell Walker’s tenure.

The Trojans are 3-8 vs D-I teams, with the wins being against teams ranked 280, 298 and 304 in the KenPom rankings. Little Rock is actually shooting the ball well this year while moving at a quick pace.

The downfall has been turnovers and a gross showing at the free throw line. The Trojans are making just 62.2 percent of their free throws, good for 333rd in the country.

Louisiana-Lafayette

Record: 9-4

KenPom: 154

NET: 169

The Rajin’ Cajuns have won seven of their last eight games but, after playing a trio of quality opponents early on, have played one of the Sun Belt’s weaker schedules. ULL also lost Malik Marquettie and his 15 points per game at the end of December.

The Cajuns are an experienced bunch, though, and still have a solid start to move forward with. They protect the basketball and convert at the free throw line at a high rate at 75.3 percent.

The biggest downside to this team has been defensive rebounding. Opponents have been grabbing 35.9 percent of their own misses.

Louisiana-Monroe

Record: 7-5

KenPom: 170

NET: 160

Keith Richard has transformed Louisiana-Monroe from a bottom feeder to a routinely competitive team. This year’s group can be a danger to take down anybody on any night thanks to some serious snipers on the outside.

The Warhawks are the Sun Belt’s version of the Houston Rockets. They’re making 40.9 percent of their three point attempts (9th) with 37.9 percent of their points coming from deep. Another 22.1 percent of ULM’s points come at the free low line as the team is hitting 76.5 percent of its free throw attempts (25th).

The mid-range game has been virtually non-existent, as 39.4 percent of ULM’s points are two-pointers (351st).

South Alabama

Record: 7-6

KenPom: 231

NET: 301

Richie Riley’s tenure at South Alabama has gotten off to an odd start. The Jaguars are 7-6 but could very well be the worst 7-6 team in the country.

South has been effective with its outside shooting, but doesn’t have any other significant strength. The Jaguars are seeing more of their shots being sent back than literally any other team in the nation.

Shooting 61.9 percent at the stripe isn’t helping matters either. The Jaguars are also getting handled on the boards, allowing opponents to grab 34.4 percent of their missed shots.

Texas-Arlington

Record: 4-9

KenPom: 239

NET: 245

The “Gonzaga of the South” plan is off to a rough start. The Mavericks are incredibly young (12 scholarship newcomers) and have played a ridiculous schedule (28th) this year.

Chris Ogden’s team is struggling from the field, nearly last in three point percentage (25.8 percent) and 269th in two point percentage (46.7 percent). A whopping 23 percent of UTA possessions end in turnover, too.

The one bright spot for this group is their ability to defend the three ball. Opponents are making just 27.2 percent of their three points.

Texas State

Record: 11-2

KenPom: 123

NET: 93

Texas State has torn through the Sun Belt’s weakest schedule and is off to its best start in school history. The Bobcats have played just three KenPom top-200 teams so far. As of right now, Texas State will have to play nine such games going forward.

The Bobcats are shooting the ball well and doing a good job in shot contest, too. Texas State is cleaning up the defensive boards, giving up a low 23.4 offensive rebound percentage.

Turnovers have been the one glaring issue for Texas State, but have made up for it by forcing its fair share.

Troy

Record: 7-5

KenPom: 168

NET: 162

Troy has played a solid schedule up to this point and have recently put together a four game win streak. The Trojans have not put together any real identity on defense this year, putting up near-average numbers for just about everything.

Offensively, the Trojans have had an uncanny knack for almost never getting blocked. Only 5.3 percent of possessions end with a block, good for ninth nationally.

The team has also had some very good luck at the free throw line, which has turned into extra wins. Troy is making 75.1 percent of its free throws while its opponents are making just 64.9 percent.

Top Scorers

1 Rayjon Tucker Little Rock 20.8 PPG
2 Ty Cockfield Ark State 20.7 PPG
3 Zac Cuthbertson Coastal 20.1 PPG
4 D’Marcus Simonds Georgia St 19.8 PPG
5 Nijal Pearson Texas St 19.8 PPG

 

Top Shooters

Threes 3FG%
1 Nijal Pearson Texas St 43 49.4%
2 Rodrick Sikes USA 37 32.5%
3 Ronshad Shabazz App St 33 38.4%
4 Ty Cockfield Ark State 31 44.3%
5 Malik Benlevi Georgia St 30 40.5%

 

Top Rebounders

1 Isaac Johnson App St 9.4 RPG
2 Zac Cuthbertson Coastal 9.1 RPG
3 Josh Ajayi USA 8.1 RPG
4 Alex Hicks Troy 7.8 RPG
5 Jakeenan Gant ULL 7.6 RPG

 

Top Facilitators

1 Marcus Stroman ULL 6.7 APG
2 Jaylen Shead Texas St 5.2 APG
3 Tookie Brown GASO 5.0 APG
4 Jaizec Lottie Little Rock 4.7 APG
5 Markquis Nowell Little Rock 4.1 APG

 

Top Defenders

1 Quan Jackson GASO 2.6 SPG
2 Marcus Stroman ULL 2.5 SPG
3 Kane Williams Georgia St 2.1 SPG
4 Daishon Smith ULM 1.9 SPG
5 DJ Bryant UTA 1.8 SPG

 

Top Rim Protectors

1 Jakeenan Gant ULL 3.4 BPG
2 Trhae Mitchell USA 2.4 BPG
3 Malik Benlevi Georgia St 1.2 BPG
4 Kris Banksdton Little Rock 1.2 BPG
5 Amidou Bamba Coastal 1.2 BPG

 

Prediction

1 Georgia State
2 Georgia Southern
3 Louisiana-Lafayette
4 Troy
5 Texas State
6 Coastal Carolina
7 Louisiana-Monroe
8 Arkansas State
9 South Alabama
10 Appalachian State
11 Little Rock
12 Texas-Arlington

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s